Albatross Know Better

Somewhere in the Southeast Pacific

Sunday 3rd November 2013

An albatross in the south-east Pacific Ocean is an inquisitive thing. That is when the high-pressure cell that Bark Europa’s Captain Klaas was trying to avoid bears down upon the ocean’s surface and becalms one and all. There we were; about 350 nautical miles south-east of Auckland; a third of the way toward the eastern-most territory of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands; the ocean heaving and flat with a curving vitreous surface. And the floating albatrosses were the telling sight. If they don’t soar it means there really is no wind.

It was already mid-morning. I climb from the ship’s bowels after sleeping off a breakfast that followed a chilly yet rewarding early morning watch 0400 – 0800 hours and I was greeted by a stunning mid-morning ocean landscape: luffing sails flapped and snapped in the bright sun and lines and blocks swayed and rattled as the ship loped and teetered on the lolling listless ocean; no swell, just a beautiful chaos of energy transfer. And surrounding us on all sides were floating albatross studding the surface of this smooth glistening water. I saw my first cluster of albatross off the starboard beam. “What is that?”, I thought?

Between Sydney and the North Island of New Zealand across the Tasman Sea albatross only ever soared the wind swept swells around us. I’d only managed an accidental photo of one thus far. And I spent a great deal of time marvelling at their wingspan and the way they engineered the air cushions beneath their bulk; zooming flat tack toward a looming, mounting swell they’d rise just as the swell’s liquid mass moved underneath their thick-plumed undercarriage. And with this added lift they’d suddenly rise and pivot on a wing tip, millimetres from the ocean’s constantly-changing surface but never touching it.

It was Day Three out of Auckland and a kind of doldrums lingered. We were after all in the Horse Latitudes where this thing was predisposed to happen. And without the wind the heat was building. And I got the feeling that the albatross were staring at us. Waiting for us to keel over.

Off the port beam there were more. A grey-black wing and back variety (Buller’s albatross) with colourful orange striations along its long hooked beak and a larger white bodied one with pink colours on the beak (the Wandering albatross). A stern there floated more. And beneath the bowsprit underneath Europa’s figurehead of the bosomed Europa riding her transformed lover the Bull out to sea, there were more albatross; sitting and staring. It was a strange and eerie sight to see them, moreover for the becalming.

I ventured a question to the First Mate and the response was pleasing: “A swim? Indeed, indeed!” he said, “But we must await the Captain’s [daily ship] briefing.”

Just after 1400 hours with news of our progress and our forecasted continued stationary state we learnt that the Oosterschelde, previously 70 NM behind us, had decided to turn on their engines and motor toward where winds were favourable and were now further south of us; Captian Klaas however, emphasised that we still retained the most easterly position. I could smell the race that he was concocting. Tecla having left two days after us was making good speeds of between seven and nine knots.

With the Ship Briefing over, the door in the mid-ship gunwales was opened and the stairs thrown over the side. I raced to be the first in the water, taking up a position near the bowsprit on the fo’c’sle (i.e. forecastle – the foremost deck at the bow). Masked and wearing my speedos I climbed over the railings and with a moment’s hesitation I dived headlong into the glassy surface, with the comforting knowledge that I wouldn’t touch bottom some 3500 metres below me.

As I surfaced to the simultaneous clicking of shutter buttons from those aboard, I had the wonderful experience of being greeted face-to-beak with a curious albatross. It paddled right over to me and came to within a foot of my face. As it approached and I heard the odd word of warning shouted from the ship I quickly donned my goggles, mindful of the need to protect my eyes if it pecked. I backed away. It held its ground. I approached again; it backed away and paddled off to observe our ship from a different position.

Having been becalmed the ocean had had a chance to build some thermal energy in the top of the water column. Indeed there were plumes of water that were distinctly pleasant to float in, but that would abruptly end when the normal water temperature came clutching in its icy pillows. Floating face up was meditative. And after a few days on ship it was rewarding to see it, its rigging and sails from water level a ways out.

Watches had been cancelled and the boat took on a different tone. My afternoon was spent making music with fellow voyage crew, Fruit Bat – his preferred name – who played his concertina accordion and young Ana-Laura – a trainee seaman from France – who sat down with us on the fo’c’sle with her harmonica. With the ship becalmed crew and voyage crew made the most of the conditions to undertake the ever-present maintenance tasks. People hung from the yards above us looking down and seemed to be enjoying the music, while they worked at tarring lines, or winding twine, or scaping paint. Later I would receive compliments from people who’d spent the afternoon at different places on the ship. With such calm conditions the sound travelled far and wide.

As the sun set the pastel tones of magenta and celeste extended to almost all horizons and the water surface took on the most surreal of appearances; it’s glassy surface reflecting the horizon’s hues creating a seemingly unnatural look to the ocean’s entire surface. Indeed, as the surface bobbed ever between crest and trough in an effortless dance of colour mirrors, the water was distinctly magenta and celeste by slow seeping turns.

“How the sea changes!”, I thought as I leaned head in hands across the side rails, the smell of spaghetti bolognese rising from the galley’s port holes. From the chop and slop leaving Auckland and the rolling foaming dunes across the Tasman to the flat alien seascape that now hung before me like a massive velvet curtain. Just then a floating albatross came near and I caught its raised eye: “I may have seen land more recently than you”, I muttered “but I’m sure you know better.”

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